How can we boost EU-Africa collaboration in research and science?

How can we boost EU-Africa collaboration in research and science?
The Square Kilometre Array is the world’s largest radio telescope installation which is being built in South Africa by a consortium of countries, including the EU and its member states. Credit: Wikimedia

The first country which newly elected European Commission President von der Leyen visited in December last year was Ethiopia where the African Union has its seat. Now with the new research programme Horizon Europe in the making, the EU has the chance to prove that EU and Africa are natural partners.

Horizon Europe is the successor to Horizon 2020 for the budget period 2021 – 2027. With its proposed €100 billion, the new research and innovation programme has the potential to transform EU’s economy and support its digital and green transition. International cooperation is key, and Africa looks forward to benefit from the programme and become an equal partner in research and development.

As closer political, economic and social ties have developed between Africa and Europe in recent years, significant opportunities lie ahead in scientific cooperation. Like its predecessor, Horizon Europe is also open to participation from African scientists, researchers, public and private actors. The goal is to increase Africa’s share of the programme to stimulate economic growth and address the UN sustainable development goals.

This was the topic at a webinar on Wednesday (21 October) organised by The Brussels Times, with a panel of experts from international organisations, and moderated by Dan Sobovitz and Christine Mhundwa.

What research areas present the most opportunity for EU-Africa cooperation? “R&D is one of the most important components in the EU-Africa partnership,” said Moctar Yedaly, Head of ICT at the African Union.

“In the past, agriculture and food security were important topics and still are. But given the pandemic today, the most promising areas are those related to the digital and green economy, with emphasis on renewable energy.” A poll among the participants in the webinar highlighted solar energy and agriculture.

A crucial question, for both the EU and Africa, is why countries should invest in R&D. The simple answer, according to Annalisa Primi, Head of Innovation and Structural Policies at the OECD Development Centre, is that R&D is about the future and our desire to stimulate economic growth. Currently, Africa accounts for less than 3 % of the world’s top scientists.

“There is enormous potential in Africa for R&D,” she said. “We need science, but you don’t rely on only one person, but on cooperation in research. We learn along the way when we carry out research together.”

Declan Kirrane, Managing Director of ISC Intelligence in Science, was optimistic about the future of EU-Africa R&D cooperation and pointed to some successful projects that have already been carried out. One example is the Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope which is being built in South Africa by a consortium of countries, including the EU and its member states.

Another success story is the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP), which has supported the development of life-saving interventions. Primi mentioned that testing kits for COVID-19 has become a priority for Africa where it could share its experience of previous epidemics.

Abraham Liu, Huawei’s Chief Representative to the EU Institutions, shared his experience from working in Africa for years before coming to Europe. He was in particular impressed by the development of telecommunication networks in Africa. “We lowered the costs significantly for networks in rural areas thanks to our joint projects with European operators.”

Running projects across countries requires good cooperation. He described Huawei as a company with headquarters in China but with a global presence operating in many countries under global rules. “The future of global cooperation is in danger if it becomes politicized by the US, which in the past used to be part of the cooperation,” he added.

People also need to be able to move around and visa facilitation for African researchers can be an issue. MEP Carlos Zorrinho, Chair of the European Parliament delegation to the ACP-EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly, agreed that mobility and a level playing field are important. “Multilateral partnerships, such as those in the Horizon programmes, require freedom of movement.”

He added that the negotiations on Horizon Europe are currently being finalised and that the international dimension of the programme has not yet been closed. “We need to change the way we cooperate in our partnerships. We have the same goals and face the same challenges that oblige us to work together as equals.”

Yedaly of the African Union said that there are already action programmes and frameworks similar to Horizon in Africa but they need to be finetuned and he advocated some kind of paradigm shift. Kirrane added that Africa has a competitive advantage in some areas but more capacity building is needed. “Science in Africa, not only with Africa,” he underlined.

Last but not the least, participants contributed to the debate too by proposing ideas for enhancing EU-Africa research cooperation:

Build and improve bridges in education and academic institutions; Give priority to African proposals in EU open calls for tenders; Improve spin-off capabilities and infrastructure; Reduce red tape and travel restrictions; Create Erasmus type programs between the continents; Promote networking instruments; Map European and African support programmes. These were but some of the many suggestions put forward by the audience.

The Brussels Times

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